Dr Caitlin: The Benefits Of Folic Acid

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Dr Caitlin O’Connor of Tralee Medical Centre in St Brendan’s Park on the benefits of Folic Acid…

What is folic acid?

Folic acid, which is also known as folate, is a B group vitamin.

Like most other vitamins, it cannot be made in the body, so it must be taken either in dietary form or by means of a folic acid supplement in tablet form.

Folic acid plays an important role in the growth of the baby in early pregnancy.

Why is folic acid important during pregnancy?

Research has shown that a lack of folic acid is linked to the development of neural tube defects in the developing foetus.

Neural tube defects are a major group of birth defects that occur when the brain or spinal cord doesn’t form properly during the early part of pregnancy.

The incidence of neural tube defects is higher in Ireland than in other European countries and the relative deficiency of folic acid in our diet contributes to this.

Taking extra folic acid prior to conception and throughout the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is known to reduce the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida by up to 70%.

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What is Spina Bifida?

Spina Bifida is the most common type of neural tube defect in Ireland. In Spina Bifida, a lesion affects the spine and the spinal cord and it may result in permanent and severe disability for the remainder of the child’s life.

Since the spine is one of the first stages of foetal development, a neural tube defect may already be present before the mother realises she is even pregnant. This is one of the main reasons why women who are hoping to become pregnant are advised to start increasing their intake of folic acid at least two months prior to conception.

While there is a small element of genetic tendency involved in Spina Bifida, there is very strong evidence to suggest that improvements in the mother’s diet, most particularly in her intake of folic acid, can prevent this condition from developing.

Can I get folic acid from food?

Foods rich in folic acid include all green leafy vegetables such as: cabbage; cauliflower; broccoli; Brussels sprouts; lettuce and spinach. It is also found in green beans; peas; potatoes; bread; bananas; oranges; grapefruit; brown rice; eggs; carrots; nuts and fish.

Some foods can also be fortified with folic acid – this means adding folic acid to the food at the processing stage.

Many foods – such as bread and cereal products already have this fortification, and these products will state that they contain extra folic acid on their packaging.

A National Committee on Folic Acid Fortification was set up by the Department of Health and Children in 2005 to examine possible options for the fortification of more foods with folic acid.

As a result of a public consultation on the issue, the Committee has recommended mandatory fortification with folic acid of most white, brown and wholemeal breads on sale in Ireland and this is now expected to be implemented.

This measure is hoped to reduce the nation’s high incidence of neural tube defects.

Why do I need to take a folic acid supplement?

While folic acid can be found in many foods, it is difficult to get enough folic acid from the diet alone to protect your unborn baby.

Even with the proposed fortification of bread, the amount of folic acid that can be obtained from breads will not be enough to provide women with the full amount they need for protection during pregnancy.

This means that women of childbearing age are recommended to take folic acid supplements (containing 400 micrograms of folic acid) for at least two months prior to conception and for the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy, in addition to the folic acid they obtain in their diet. Folic acid supplements cannot harm the developing foetus.

Where can I obtain folic acid tablets?

Folic acid tablets can be purchased over the counter (without prescription), in your local pharmacy or in health food stores.

They are usually sold in a handy dispenser which holds a 28-day supply of tablets. If you have a medical card you can get them free of charge on prescription from your doctor.

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